July 15, 2007

What floats her boat

an interview with...

student employment advisor

The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale

Who's the expert on landing a graphic design job in South Florida? She’s a boating columnist with a master’s degree in creative writing from FIU.

But Melanie Neale is also the job-placement expert at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, which boasts 94.4 percent of its students find design work within six months of graduation.

When Neale isn’t writing her regular column for Cruising World or freelancing for other boating magazines, she’s “editing resumes, talking on the phone to employers, running around on class visits, staging and conducting mock interviews, and getting an insider’s view of the job-hunting process from the time the job is posted to the day the student starts working.”

And when she’s not writing or working, Neale is literally out to sea. She’s also a licensed captain.

How’s the market for graphic designers these days?

The good news is that design jobs are everywhere – especially in urban areas like South Florida, where there are numerous advertising agencies, publicity firms, realtors, magazines, newspapers, and print shops. But there are also less-obvious jobs.

A good friend of mine worked as the creative director for a small local retail store, and they kept him busy designing their catalog, promotional pieces, tradeshow booths, and even the interior of the store! Almost every business needs a designer. Those who can afford to hire one usually will, and those who can’t tend to pay freelancers. If you’re really organized and aggressive, you can make a decent living freelancing, especially in an area like South Florida.

Starting salary for a new designer?

While still in school, design students are making $10 to $20 an hour working part-time. Just out of school, the average range seems to be $25,000 to $40,000 a year.

This depends, obviously, on their experience and their skills. The highly employable graduate will have at least two internships and part-time design and freelance work on his or her resume.

What do bosses tell you they want from designers?

I probably speak with 30 different employers in a month. Naturally, they want someone who can do it all – who knows HTML and web design, and who can write advertising copy and plan events. Copywriting is a really important skill, and a design student who takes the time to learn it effectively and includes great copy in his or her portfolio will stand out above the rest. Copy that’s grammatically incorrect or full of typos is a sure-fire way not to get the job.

What’s some practical advice for students and pros?

Create a website and keep it up. If you do lots of freelance work, list your clients. Make sure your resume is there and is easy to find. Post your design samples. Ideally, the domain name is the designer’s name – an email address like joe@joedesigner.com is more impressive to an employer than hotbeachbum@hotmail.com. For someone who doesn’t have web-design skills, Yahoo Small Business is really inexpensive and easy.

What about resumes?

Your resume should be hip and colorful, created in Photoshop or Illustrator, and beautified by your most stunning design work. But it shouldn’t have images of palmetto bugs all over it (unless you’re applying for a design job with an exterminator).

And yes, we’ve seen a resume with bugs on it. Avoid them, drug images, guns, naked women, and cigarettes. It doesn’t matter what your personal tastes are when you’re applying for a job. And take the controversial stuff out of your portfolio, unless you think the situation calls for it. For example, if you were applying for a job designing promotional pieces for a night club, scantily clad men and women may be acceptable.

One piece of advice you wish could be surgically implanted into students’ skulls?

If you’re a student and you haven’t completed an internship, then get out there as fast as possible and find one. Finish it and move on to another one. Try as hard as you can, while you’re in school, to work in your field. “Assistant designer” looks much better on a resume than “sales associate.”

Aren’t internships a bit dicey?

Many employers are looking for student help or for interns simply because they want someone to do the work of a professional for next to nothing. We screen every company that takes our students on as interns, to make sure that the students will be supervised by a design professional and won’t simply be fetching someone’s coffee.

Three major mistakes design students make when they seek a job?

Inflexibility is the biggest. It’s important for a student to be able to go to an employer and say, “I can design exactly what you want” – even if the student would rather draw comics than design logos.

The second big mistake is simply not using the phone. I think this is partially because they’re artists and are completely comfortable behind a computer screen – and, of course, because we live in the age of digital communication. But it’s nice for an employer to associate a voice with a name. People are much more likely to remember the applicant who was polite and well-spoken over the phone than the one who simply sent an email.

Number three goes hand-in-hand with number two. Lots of designers, for whatever reason, don’t follow up. A handwritten thank-you note mailed directly after an interview will, hopefully, arrive at the employer’s office while he or she is in the critical decision-making mode. An email is good, but not as good as a note. And a note and a phone call are even better!

Parting advice?

As with everything else, it helps to be good at networking. Who will write you a recommendation letter? What will people say about you when an employer calls for a reference? Try to be outgoing, enthusiastic, and energetic – whether you feel like it or not.